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How Hugh Jackman Made Wolverine His Own Without Being Defined by Him

Many movie stars playing superheroes end up being pigeonholed by — or resentful of — their defining role. But not the Oscar-nominated actor, who’s as comfortable portraying Logan as he is in the new sci-fi drama ‘Reminiscence.’

We’re now deep into a Hollywood era in which stars matter less than intellectual property. You’re more likely to go see something with Iron Man than you are with Robert Downey Jr. In an age of superhero sequels, audiences clamor for another Aquaman movie, not necessarily a generic-looking Jason Momoa thriller. So if you manage to get hooked up with Marvel or the DCEU, congrats: It’s probably a nice gravy train for an actor. But it also means that anything you do outside of that universe will probably never get as much attention. And what happens if you get burned out from playing that same character in movie after movie? Granted, there are a multitude of worse problems to have, but for that elite cadre of franchise stars, I imagine it’s surreal to be tied to a character who, more than likely, wears a cape.

Hugh Jackman didn’t as Wolverine, a superhero better known for claws than cloaks. He’s in a new movie out this weekend, Reminiscence, an intriguing sci-fi drama in which he plays a man who helps people relive their most treasured memories, in the process falling for a mysterious beauty (his Greatest Showman costar Rebecca Ferguson) who has a dark past. 

For all its interesting ideas, the film ultimately doesn’t quite work, but what’s most striking is that, as opposed to some of his fellow A-listers, it doesn’t feel weird to see him in another role. He’ll always be most famous for playing the moody mutant Logan — and, yet, he somehow escaped the predicament faced by so many of his cohorts. Jackman is unique in that he’s played one character very successfully for a very long time, managed not to get sick of that character along the way and been able to establish a pretty stellar career outside of that character. Some actors can claim one or two of those achievements, but not all three. It’s genuinely impressive, and I think it says something specific about Jackman’s appeal and savvy. Any actor wondering how to have their franchise and eat it too would do well to follow his example.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories about how close he was to not playing Wolverine. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000, back before he was a household name. Russell Crowe had been considered for the part, but he turned Fox down, recommending his fellow Australian actor Jackman. Later, Dougray Scott was all set to be Logan, but delays on the film he was shooting, Mission: Impossible II, forced him to withdraw. (“Tom Cruise didn’t let me do it,” Scott later said. “We were doing Mission: Impossible and he was like, ‘You’ve got to stay and finish the film,’ and I said, ‘I will, but I’ll go and do that as well.’ For whatever reason he said I couldn’t. He was a very powerful guy.”) Jackman had auditioned months earlier, assuming he didn’t have much of a chance, but when Scott had to pass, the producers quickly booked Jackman since filming for X-Men had already gotten underway. It was all a bit of good luck. (And that’s not even mentioning the early hiccups that occurred once he got on set — most notably, that Jackman mistakenly thought that a wolverine was a made-up creature, acting like a wolf for the first couple weeks of shooting. According to Jackman, director Bryan Singer told him to “go to the zoo, dude” so he could learn how the animal behaved.)

Jackman hadn’t come out of nowhere, of course. He’d gone to acting school in Perth, getting steady theater work soon after graduating. His big breakthrough was a revival of Oklahoma! near the end of the 1990s, but it also risked pigeonholing him. “I couldn’t get an audition [for film] because I was not ‘an actor’ — I was a ‘musical theater performer,’” he recalled a few years ago, later adding, “All I wanted to tell people is if you have any idea how hard it is to convey thought through song — because that’s what it is, instead of through talking, you’re conveying it through song, it’s not just a bunch of notes — it’s really, really difficult to do.”

The first X-Men, especially by modern comic-book-movie standards, is a pretty low-key affair, lacking the nonstop spectacle that’s become common in these films. Going into the production, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry and Ian McKellen were the bigger names, but Jackman was the discovery, bringing a feral, swaggering menace to Wolverine. Jackman hadn’t grown up reading X-Men, so the mania around superheroes was lost on him, but he figured out quickly what this comic — and this character — meant to fans. “It’s kind of daunting in a way,” he told the L.A. Times before the film’s release. “I sat down with about 10 science-fiction magazine writers recently, and for a good 15 seconds, there was silence. They were literally staring at me like I was from outer space. And finally they said, ‘You’ve gotta excuse us, man, but — we’re looking at Wolverine. This is amazing. We’ve waited 30 years for this.’”

By the time of 2003’s X2: X-Men United, it was clear that Wolverine was one of the franchise’s main draws, and Jackman’s character became a bigger part of the story, continuing with X-Men: The Last Stand, which closed the trilogy. But Fox wasn’t done with Jackman, putting him in his own spinoff, the poorly received X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This was 2009, just around the time that superheroes were now a major staple in multiplexes. The Dark Knight and Iron Man had both come out the year before, each in their own way reshaping the landscape — that Batman movie argued that the genre could produce serious works of art, while Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray as Tony Stark launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tobey Maguire had made three Spider-Man movies. And, of course, the X-Men trilogy had been a commercial smash. After four movies as the same character, most actors would move on or be replaced by the studio — X-Men Origins made Jackman wonder if it was time to hang it up.

“I couldn’t see what the next thing was,” he recalled in 2017. “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know where to go.” The fact that fans didn’t dig X-Men Origins didn’t help: “I knew people liked the character. Not all the fans like that first Wolverine. They’re very vocal with me. Good or bad, they tell me. It’s kind of a family I have. ‘What were you thinking?! I love you, man, but that was…’”

Other actors playing beloved pop-culture fixtures let you know just how damn tired they are of being stuck in those roles. (It’s hard to forget Daniel Craig declaring, in 2015, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists [than make another James Bond movie]. … All I want to do is move on.”) Others are in the process right now of figuring out what their post-franchise life will look like. Downey’s first big movie after Iron Man was the critical and commercial disaster Dolittle. Chris Evans made a deeply dull Netflix drama — and that was after expressing strong reservations about all the attention that Captain America brought to his life. (“I love acting,” he said about the Marvel circus, “but that’s not all you’re asking me to do.”) Sadly, we’ll never know what Chadwick Boseman’s career might have looked like. 

But Jackman has never really soured on Wolverine — even after X-Men Origins sucked. It might be, in part, because he kept doing interesting work outside of the X-Men. In 2006, the same year X-Men: The Last Stand came out, he showed real range by appearing in The Prestige, a dark portrait of rival magicians that saw him teaming up with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale during a Batman break, and The Fountain, the divisive but deeply moving sci-fi love story dreamed up by director Darren Aronofsky. These were challenging works, but he seemed to relish what was difficult about them — and his directors loved what he brought to those films.

“How many male actors have you actually seen do emotional work?” Aronofsky asked an interviewer at the time. “On the road [promoting the movie], that’s come up. I’ve been in 15 cities in the last two-three weeks, and a lot of different people, women, have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen a man that vulnerable, on or off screen.’ I didn’t really know what he could do, because when I first started this he wasn’t on my list, because he had just done Wolverine — which he was fantastic as … just to step into that role out of nowhere and actually pull it off was a big accomplishment. But, I hadn’t seen nothing else.” 

Funny enough, it was Aronofsky checking out Jackman in a musical, the 2003 revival of The Boy From Oz, that made him decide he’d be right to play The Fountain’s series of men who, across time, are trying to save their true love (Rachel Weisz). “I just saw an incredible amount of talent, it was undeniable,” Aronofsky said about watching Jackman in The Boy From Oz. “Outside of what he did in The Fountain, the guy can sing and dance. I mean it’s really kind of upsetting.” 

It’s not that, like other actors whose star is hitched to a franchise, he didn’t have struggles branching out into other potential blockbusters. If you enjoyed Van Helsing, you’re a kinder soul than I, and Real Steel is one of those big-budget hits that leaves zero imprint on the collective consciousness. But while “expanding your brand” is a gross phrase, movie stars have to think about such things, and perhaps the smartest thing he did outside of Wolverine was host the Oscars in 2009. 

Hosting the Academy Awards is usually a thankless task — people are always excited when a host is announced and then, invariably, they’re angrily disappointed after the broadcast — and Jackman at least had experience from hosting the Tonys a few times. Still, the Oscars have a way of humbling people, a fact that underscored how good Jackman was in the gig, sidestepping the potential pitfalls by exuding a self-deprecating charm that really worked. This was especially evident in an opener built around the conceit that, because the Great Recession was going on, the usually lavish musical number that starts the show had to be scaled down. And so Jackman, working with intentionally handmade-looking sets, confidently sang and danced, poking fun at the Oscar nominees along the way. Those opening Oscar set pieces are always a bit clunky, but this one was actually pretty funny.  

The opener’s ending found Jackman building to a big, rousing finale, where he belts out “I am Wolverine!” with self-mocking, Broadway-like gusto. And, sure, people knew him mostly from that role. But like Aronofsky, I imagine a lot of other people in Hollywood were a bit stunned to realize how purely talented he was. “Talented” is a weird adjective to use — all actors are talented — but in an age where folks who sing and dance have trouble breaking into movies because they’re “musical theater performers,” Jackman seemed entirely different from everyone around him. Bale was a terrific Batman, but he couldn’t do that

If the Oscars helped prove that he shouldn’t be defined by Wolverine, outwardly he never acted as if he was “above” the character. If anything, he sorta knew — as we all did — that he was playing the coolest X-Men. That’s why his brief cameo in the 2011 reboot/prequel X-Men: First Class was so well-orchestrated: Young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) go into a bar to see about recruiting Logan, who promptly tells them to fuck off. It was Jackman’s playful way of saying, “Get out of here, you whippersnappers: You’ll never be as iconic as me.” You can’t say he was wrong.

Jackman always brought that touching protectiveness to his treatment of Wolverine. Obviously, he wanted the movies to be good so they would make money and burnish his stardom, but it felt personal, too — as if he’d never forgotten those sci-fi magazine writers freaking out about being in the same room as Wolverine. His earnest love for Wolverine is astoundingly corny, of course — and other actors since have tried to convey how much playing a particular superhero meant to them — but Jackman’s stock in trade is upbeat, jocular sincerity. He makes being corny seem pretty endearing, even decent. 

Not that his commitment to Logan did much to help 2013’s The Wolverine, which got decent reviews mostly on the strength of it not being as bad as X-Men Origins. Jackman was part of the next two X-Men sequels, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, and then he decided he wanted to make one more Wolverine movie. But he wanted it to be different than the ones he’d made before. 

“If I did another one, I’m 99.9 percent sure it would be the last, so that will inform what it is for me,” he said in 2014, later adding, “I’m genuinely at that point where unless it’s better than the last one I’m not going to do it. I think it has to be better. I can still see where we can improve on the last one. I love the intimacy of that story, I liked the small stuff, I liked that it was a little unexpected. I don’t want to get into specifics, because it just upsets people, but there are certain parts of that story where I felt we were predictable. And I don’t think you need to do that with Wolverine.”

He and director James Mangold, who’d made The Wolverine, spent years talking about what this final film could be. “I don’t think we could have made this movie if I didn’t know it was going to be my last,” Jackman said in 2017 when Logan finally came out. “The stakes tripled for me. There was no safety net. There was no ‘Oh, if it’s dead on arrival, have another go.’ This is it.” He conceived the film as a mix of Unforgiven and The Wrestler — the latter movie, interestingly enough, being one he had referenced during that Oscar musical number, doing a comically exaggerated version of Mickey Rourke’s hair-flip. “[Rourke’s character] still has his desires and ambitions,” Jackman explained regarding what in The Wrestler he wanted to bring to Logan, “but the weight of everyday life and his past seem to be getting the better of him.”

Two things can be true simultaneously: I can be one of those few people who finds Logan strained in its aspiration for weighty significance — it really, really wants you to know it’s been conceived like a dark, revisionist Western, not some fun superhero movie — but also admire the chutzpah it took for Jackman to close the book on Wolverine that way. From its title to its grim worldview, Logan was far from a commercial slam dunk — it practically dared you not to like it. But I think that’s ultimately why it resonated so much and did so well at the box office: Fans could tell that the film had been made by someone deeply invested in this character. Jackman cared like they cared. When people say superhero movies don’t take risks, this one did.

Pulling off that gamble would have made his 2017 memorable enough. But he rolled the dice even more boldly later that year on an original musical that, ironically, came from his time hosting the Oscars. Laurence Mark, who helped produce that year’s show, told Vulture in 2019 about an incident that stayed with him:

“At some point while Hugh was onstage rehearsing, I think I turned to [show producer] Bill [Condon] and said, ‘Gosh, what a showman he is,’ then somehow P.T. Barnum came around, and I said to [Jackman] at some point later on, ‘I don’t know if you have any interest, I don’t know, we were just thinking about you as P.T. Barnum and the greatest showman on earth.’ Hugh Jackman said, ‘I love that idea. If you want to explore it, feel free to knock on my door when you have something more to sort of talk about.’ The next person we spoke to was Jenny Bicks who was a writer on the Oscars who was standing about 10 feet away. We said, ‘Jenny, would you mind thinking about P.T. Barnum?’ She came up with the first draft of the screenplay.”

By that point, Jackman had received his first — and to date, only — Oscar nomination for Les Misérables. Ever since the success of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, movie musicals had enjoyed a commercial rebirth in the 21st century. But The Greatest Showman was a risk. It wasn’t a preexisting musical — and unlike Moulin Rouge!, they weren’t using beloved pop songs. Plus, it was opening against The Last Jedi and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — properties people had heard of. Basically, if anyone was going to see The Greatest Showman, it would be because of Hugh Jackman.

At first, it seemed like not many people would — The Greatest Showman struggled in its opening weekend. But the movie was one of those rare success stories that starts off modestly and then just keeps going and going. The Greatest Showman was a film that people saw and then told their friends — who also loved it and then told their friends, and then maybe went to see it again in the theater themselves. As with Logan, I’m actually not that fond of The Greatest Showman — it’s a big mess with a big heart — but I couldn’t help but admire Jackman. Studios don’t release original movies anymore — and if you say, “Well it’s actually about P.T. Barnum,” please direct me to where the huge P.T. Barnum booth is at Comic-Con. Jackman essentially bet on himself — not fans’ love of Wolverine, but of him — and it paid off. 

You think about the huge franchises of the last few decades and the stars who were in them. None of those men or women have mapped out the career that Jackman has. Even if Reminiscence isn’t particularly good, it’s got ambitions and it’s got soul, and Jackman seems wholly invested in it. You don’t watch him thinking that he peaked playing a superhero — you see the same intensity and emotional openness that he brought to Logan within this performance. (The same goes for his work in the recent Bad Education, which, funny enough, I also didn’t entirely love. But I consider that a further testament to Jackman: I may not think the films he does are necessarily all amazing, but I find myself endlessly intrigued by his choices and his willingness to stick his neck out for projects that more cautious actors would avoid.)

As much as he loved Wolverine, he achieved that most clichéd of actor compliments: He made the character his own, which means he merged the best aspects of the character with the most compelling parts of himself. And he seemed to genuinely love it. Jackman was able to walk away from the character with his head held high — and without worrying that audiences wouldn’t accept him in any other role. Back in 2000, those magazine writers couldn’t believe they were sitting in the same room as Wolverine. What they didn’t realize was that they were sitting in the same room as Hugh Jackman.

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